White Corn

By Ray Hansen, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University, hansenr@iastate.edu.

Revised April 2012 by Gary Brester, professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Montana State University, gbrester@montana.eduwhite corn chips and totillas


Approximately 3% of U.S. corn production is used for human consumption annually. Of that, white corn accounts for less than 1%. However, demand for white corn is increasing as U.S. Latino populations expand and the popularity of Hispanic cuisine grows. White corn is often the preferred corn variety for use in Mexican-style and other corn-based foods including tortillas, corn flakes, corn meal, grits and hominy.   


Domestic use of white corn has experienced modest increases of 4% to 7% over the past several years. Domestic white corn usage accounts for about one-half of U.S. production while exports account for the remainder. Domestic production is approximately 80 million bushels, and U.S. white corn exports represent about 35 million bushels.


Food-grade white corn is grown in several states, but Texas and Nebraska are the leading producers. Indiana, Illinois and Iowa also produce significant quantities of white corn. An estimated 700,000 acres were planted to white corn in 2005, compared to 430,000 acres in 1990. Genetic improvements have increased white corn yields and contributed to higher production levels.

White corn must be identity-preserved to maintain its value in end-use products. Producers must minimize cross-pollen contamination from yellow corn, and in some cases, genetically-modified varieties. To maintain necessary isolation requirements, producers use isolated acreages or pay neighboring yellow corn producers to maintain a 660-feet buffer zone between yellow and neighboring white corn fields. These isolation requirements add to production costs. Other factors that increase production costs include handling requirements and low-temperature drying, which is needed to reduce kernel stress cracks.
Increased production costs must be offset by price premiums relative to yellow corn production. Premiums range from $0.30/bushel to $0.60/bushel depending on specific contract and quality standards. End-users or processors often pay growers additional premiums (as much as $0.30/bushel) for meeting various additional quality factors including #1 grade, hardness, cleanliness, kernel size and kernel color.

About one-half of U.S. white corn is produced under contract to buyers or end users. Many contracts stipulate varieties and numbers of acres planted. Several major white corn processors and numerous small processing facilities process food-grade white corn. Major white corn users and millers include PepsiCo-owned products labeled under Frito Lay, Quaker Oats and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Milling product lines including Azteca and Martha White. Frito Lay has a large presence in Nebraska and Illinois. llinois and Indiana provide white corn for Azteca.


Processing practices must preserve the identity of white corn from harvesting through processing. Nearly all white corn is delivered to specific delivery points where it is cleaned and dried. For several large end-users, the specified delivery point is their processing plant. Some growers choose to dry corn on their own farms, provide storage, and then deliver on demand.

Value-added Uses

The three most common uses of white corn are food, starch and paper. White corn is sold to dry-mill processors or used in alkaline cooking processes to produce a high-quality, light-colored flour. Approximately 80% of U.S. white corn is used in corn-based masa products such as tortillas, tortilla chips, corn chips, tostados and tacos.

Although white corn has limited wet-milling uses for food-grade starch, it is used to naturally brighten starch produced from other products. White corn starch is also used in paper products.


The United States exports about one-third of its white corn production. Exports grew substantially during the 1990s. Almost no white corn was exported in 1990, but about 40 million bushels (out of 100 million bushels of domestic production) were exported in 1999. However, exports declined to about 35 million bushels in 2010.

Mexico grows more white corn than yellow corn because of the country’s focus on food rather than feed production. Nonetheless, Mexico’s production usually does not meet domestic demand. Hence, Mexico has historically been the largest U.S. white corn export market. In 2009, Mexico represented 54% of the U.S. export market. Mexico imported 19 million bushels of white corn followed by Columbia (4.3 million bushels), Honduras (3 million bushels), Costa Rica (2.3 million bushels) and Japan (1.9 million bushels).


Corn, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA.
U.S. White Corn Exports by Selected Destinations, Feed Grains Database: Yearbook Tables, ERS, USDA.
Value-Enhanced Grains 2005/2006 Report, U.S. Grains Council, 2006.
Links checked August 2014.